**** 4 out of 5 stars
As it is Halloween it seems a good time to review a Tim Burton film, and one of my personal favourites. Corpse Bride is seldom regarded as been up there with his best, but I love it.
It is often compared with The Nightmare Before Christmas, which certainly does have a massive fanbase. I will admit that film was more distinctive than Corpse Bride, taking place in mostly in fantastical lands Halloween Town and Christmas Town. But personally, I enjoyed Corpse Bride a lot more. It could be that it is a more traditional story.
It has a period drama style set in Victorian England, and stock characters, particularly the servants. The initial story is one of an arranged marriage between two families who are opposites but have similar goals. The Van Dorts, skinny William and chubby Nell, are fishmongers who have become wealthy through their business. As they are nouveau rich they think that marrying into the aristocratic family will raise their social status and put them into high society. That family are the Everglots, short toad-like Lord Innis and tall Cinderella‘s Stepmother look-a-like Lady Maudeline. They are landed gentry that now have no money left, and to save them from the poorhouse they want to marry into a family with money, even though they snootily look down their noses at them. However the arranged marriage seems like it will work as timid clumsy Victor Van Dort and quiet downtrodden Victoria Everglot both see that they have a lot in common and like each other straight away. The main conflict of this film comes when Victor cannot recite his wedding vows correctly in the rehearsal, so practices out in the woods at night…. which leads to him accidently marrying a Corpse Bride. From here, Victor has a problem of how to get out of this surreal situation, not least because the sinister Lord Barkis Bittern seems keen to move into the vacant spot as Victoria’s husband.
The Corpse Bride, once a beautiful woman named Emily, was murdered in the woods when she was due to get married, and has since been waiting in the hope that a potential husband will to marry her. She resembles more a ghost bride, especially with her tattered, white wedding dress blowing in the wind, and she has an eerie otherworldly beauty dancing in a dreamlike state in the snow on a moonlight night.
One main thing about this film is the contrast between the land of the living and the land of the dead. The land of the living is grey, grim and dreary, while the land of the dead is bright, colourful and, ironically, lively. This is best shown with the strongest song in the film ‘Remains Of The Day’, a song performed by a jazzy Sammy Davis Junior-ish skeleton named Bonejangles (voiced by Danny Elfman, who as this is a Tim Burton film also wrote all the music) in a bar which has skeletons who play pool, use their own bones as instruments and include one who looks like Napoleon Boneapart.
As well as Danny Elfman, the film stars actors that are regulars of Tim Burton films. The lead roles of Victor and the Corpse Bride are played by Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter respectively, and Christopher Lee voices the intimidating priest Pastor Galswells. But these actors are well cast in their roles, indeed you could easily imagine them playing those parts if this film was live action. The choice to make the film a stop-motion animation allows them to create cartoonish caricatures and exaggerated features such as the big pointy nose of the butler, and all the large pointed chins. It is even better used in the land of the dead, possibly allowing it to be more convincing than what it may have looked like in a live action film. The style of stop motion animation suits the fantastical nature of the underworld, and generally it gives a feel of illustrations in an old children’s book bought to life.
As usual with animated films, we get some funny animal sidekicks. Victor is reunited with his dog, Scraps, who is now a skeleton, (and very similar to Zero, Jack Skellington’s ghost dog in The Nightmare Before Christmas) Emily has a maggot who sounds like Peter Lorre, and there’s also a black widow spider.
What stands out most for me in this film is the humour. There are a lot of puns, so depending on your tolerance for that it may grate a little, but what I like about this film is the black comedy. Lady Maudeline Everglot (who Joanna Lumley voices with relish) gets the best line, when her daughter worries that she and Victor might not like each other she dismissively replies. “As if that has anything to do with marriage. Do you suppose your father and I like each other?” Wise old skeleton Elder Gutknecht makes an elaborate potion which is implied to be the one that will take them back to the land of the living… it turns out he’s just making himself a drink and the spell turns out to be more straightforward. In the final battle between Victor and the villain, undead cook Miss Plum tosses Victor a weapon which she thought was knife, and it turned out to be a fork.
They also manage to get a humourous look on what it might be like to be the living dead. Emily’s maggot tells her “If I had not just been sitting in it, I’d say you’d lost your mind”. Emily herself gets a catty comment about her love rival. “Little Miss Living . Maybe he belongs with her with her rosy cheeks and beating heart”. However it is refreshing that Emily doesn’t go down the road of hating and resenting Victoria. In fact she sympathises with her when Emily is about to marry Victor for real, and seeing Victoria upset makes Emily tearfully back down from marrying Victor. She had her own dreams taken from her so cruelly, and she can’t bring herself to do the same to someone else.
The ending is often described as bittersweet. In many ways it’s a conventionally happy ending. The villain, slimy, cowardly Lord Barkis tricked Emily into falling in love with him, murdered her and stole her parent’s money, and was planning to do the same to Victoria. But he very much gets comeuppance, after making a smug speech he ends up poisoning himself before being tortured, as if going to Hell, by the undead. It can also be assumed that Victor and Victoria go on to live happily ever after. The reason the ending is bittersweet is all to do with the fate of Emily. She’s certainly a very tragic figure, murdered by a man she fell in love with, spending her afterlife waiting for someone else, and when he does arrive it turns out he loves another so she gets her heart broken all over again. She chooses to give up her last chance of ever having what she always wanted, and walks out of the church looking like a bride going down the aisle. But in a way it is presented as at least partly a positive thing, as she now says she has been “set free”. There are echoes of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations in Emily, however unlike Miss Havisham the fact that Emily is able move on is what helps her be at peace in the end. Interestingly enough, Helena Bonham Carter is due to play Miss Havisham in an upcoming film adaptation of Great Expectations.
The last scene of the film is … Emily turning into lots of butterflies which fly up towards the moon. The implication is that Emily has gone to Heaven, and perhaps the filmmakers thought her turning into an angel would be too corny, but it’s still a bit weird. The scene does however, look very pretty, and strange but beautiful is very much what Tim Burton likes to put across in his films.
I think this film is underrated. It is very much a Tim Burton film through and through, so it depends on whether you like his style or not, but as a film on its own terms it has a great cast, gorgeous visuals and a very nicely told story.